Autism AMA: Sensory Regulation

Back in April, I offered to participate in an Ask Me Anything (AMA) for my fellow teachers, and I responded to their questions as time allowed. It’s taken me some time to find them all as I saved my responses a variety of ways. Here is, I think, the final installment.

Erica asks:

I would love to learn more about the sensory needs. How do you regulate, knowing when there is a need?

Regulating the sensory stuff at school is tough because I can’t just head to a calming space in the middle of, say, teaching third grade. My job is very, very overstimulating, and those stimuli often manifest as physical pain. Xylophones for example – when my senses are overloading, they manifest as little needles behind my eyes. I’ve tried various ways to muffle instruments to reduce the sensory overload, but nothing has been terribly successful. I will, however, keep a lot of my lights off on any given day, and that can help.

I have a related problem of auditory prioritization. A child talking right in front of my is receiving the same amount of mental processing power as a pencil tapping across the room, the sound of the fluorescent lights, a conversation in the hallway, and the air vents. My brain is trying to process them all equally. It can make something as simple as a conversation somewhat confusing. If you’ve ever been talking with me, and I ask you to repeat yourself a couple of times – that’s likely what’s going on. Your words are just becoming disconnected phonemes lost among the sundry other sounds you are filtering out without a second thought.

I know I’m overloading when I start getting unaccountably angry. It’s like a crawling/twinging sensation in my neck and shoulders. At that point, I’m in danger of the class seeing me behave angrily (and some have), so I will often try to conclude the activity we’re on and move to something quieter – whether I’ve planned such an activity or not. Other times, if the kids are working independently, I’ll step outside my door for just a second in an attempt to “reset”. Sometimes, I may just get really quiet for a few seconds as I attempt to reset internally – but that’s a last resort as it guarantees a meltdown later to buy me a few minutes right now.

And that is a trick I’ve learned over the years. If I’m reaching social seizure point, I can sometimes defer the meltdown to a later hour. Unfortunately, that “later” is usually at home, and it’s more intense than had I simply been able to retreat when initially needed. Other self-interventions: I may keep myself weighed down with a jacket; I might keep fiddling with my Pod; I might keep my lights dimmed; I may just start playing my class keyboard.

It’s also important to understand sensory control. I might be doing something noisy – like playing a video game – that is still soothing and cathartic because I have *control* over the sensory inputs. It’s the *uncontrolled* stimuli that causes problems. An outside observer might see a contradiction when they see a kid upset by the noise in the classroom but calming down by banging on a drum. Stimulus control is an important part of sensory regulation.


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